With its monumental scale and monochromatic simplicity, Alberto Burri’s Nero Cellotex exemplifies the Italian artist’s scrutiny of the traditional rules of painting. The work belongs to Burri’s eminent last series, the Cellotex, a large body of works created between 1986 and 1987, less than a decade before his death in 1995. With examples of the series housed in major museum collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Nero Cellotex subversively positions matter and medium as the subject of painting to radically explore the limitless potential of materiality as a vehicle for artistic expression.
The industrial boards used for the Cellotex series were composed from compressed sawdust and glue – simple and durable materials which Burri then manipulated through a pioneering process of cutting, shaping, gauging, scratching and burning. The carbon black forms of Nero Cellotex utilise classical and balanced compositional elements, wherein the matte base upholds a second layer of varnished geometrical shapes that stretch horizontally across the board. Consolidating the crisp, sharp edges and the smooth fluidity of the conjoined elements, the black surface has been heavily and consciously wrought by the artist in direct opposition to the Combustione, which relied fortuitously on elemental reactions and counterreactions. Stripped to its bare essence, the overall format of the present work is both refined, nuanced and raw. Evoking the coarse tactility of the natural burlap used in the artist’s earliest and ground-breaking Sacchi, the work’s compositional elements have been cut, pulled and sculpted to create a lyrical band of textured black-on-black shapes.
Alongside Lucio Fontana, Burri is considered one of the most important Italian artists of the post-war period of the Twentieth Century. Having trained as a doctor, the artist was conscripted to military service in 1940 and served in Libya as a combat medic. Profoundly affected by his experiences, he abandoned the medical profession at the end of the war to pursue a career as an artist. Yet, whilst Burri’s art is frequently interpreted in light of his medical background and war trauma, the conceptual charge of his work is of foremost significance. A leading figure of the Italian avant-garde, Burri simultaneously drew from the rich heritage of the Italian Renaissance, and his complex and multifaceted work evokes what author Michael Duncan has described as “the abstract elements in Renaissance frescoes, that is, the nature of space-creating compositional structures and use of colour… the charged pictorial spaces of these psychic arenas” (Michael Duncan, ‘Slow Burning Combustion: Alberto Burri’s Emergence in America’ in: Exh. Cat., Santa Monica, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Combustione: Alberto Burri and America, 2010, p. 10).
Through developing a profound and prolific oeuvre, Burri sought to create a new world of form. His interest in texture is never purely limited to surface; rather, the patchwork forms of Nero Cellotex suggest a body and depth beyond the pictorial plane, as poetic shapes morph into landscapes. The meeting of the glossy and unpolished elements gives way to diagrammatic contours that are also evocative of the quadrature technique used to create illusionistic ceiling paintings during the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo periods. Burri’s pioneering experiments with collage and found objects imparted a radical approach to abstraction which paved the way for the artists associated with the Arte Povera movement, including Enrico Castellani, Luciano Fabro and Michelangelo Pistoletto. Achieving a subtle fusion and juxtaposition of composition, texture and palette, Nello Cellotex stands as a work of pivotal importance within Burri's highly acclaimed oeuvre.
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